Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Doctor's Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi

The Doctor's Wife
by Sawako Ariyoshi
translated from Japanese by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant
174 pages
Published by Kodansha International Ltd.
Copyright 1966

source: borrowed from the library

In a nutshell:
This novel is based on the life of Dr. Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), the Japanese doctor who performed the first operation under general anesthesia, but focuses primarily on the relationship between his wife and mother.

My thoughts:
After a string of long books, I was craving one that could be read in just a couple of sittings. The Doctor's Wife had been on hold for months (thanks to Mel's review), and my library came through just before the TBR Dare got started - a rare case of perfect timing.

As a young girl, Kae is mesmerized by the beauty of Dr. Hanoka's wife, Otsugi.  Years later she is overjoyed when Otsugi selects her to be the bride of their eldest son.  Umpei is away studying medicine but Kae, it seems, possesses all the qualities necessary for a doctor's wife.
"The first requirement is good health.  Other essentials are courage, a strong will, and an understanding of the nature of the medical profession, although the woman may not know how to take a pulse... A confident, capable woman does not become alarmed at the sight of blood or serious infirmities.  Instead, she cleans the wound..." (p. 16-17)
A marriage ceremony takes place without the groom. Three years will pass before husband and wife finally meet. During that time, a close and loving relationship develops between Kae and her mother-in-law.
Otsugi spoke more softly. "I am called 'Mother' by you though you are not really my child. Yet I feel you are as dear to me as my own daughters.  Our relationship has deep roots. It was probably decreed by fate." (p. 45)
When Umpei eventually comes home to take over his father's practice, Kae and Otsugi's relationship becomes fraught with jealousy and deteriorates quickly.
"Otsugi's action, which prevented her son from being with his wife, may not have been deliberate. Yet it expressed an undeniable antagonism toward her daughter-in-law. So it came to pass that the beautiful intimacy between the two - the bride and the mother-in-law who had sought her - terminated upon the arrival of the loved one they had to share." (p.58)
Umpei (also called Seishu) is intrigued with surgery, especially breast surgery.  Common belief held that a woman's breasts were vital to life and pain associated with surgery would result in death. Umpei experiments with anesthesia on animals, and is eventually ready to try his new medicine on humans.

The novel gets very interesting as Kae and Otsugi vie to become the first human subjects, thus proving their greater love for Umpei. There is an especially hilarious dialog with each one-upping the other listing reasons why she should be chosen.  Both women, however, are actually afraid the medicine will kill them.

I won't spoil things by telling you who gets to be the 'guinea pig' or the outcome of the clinical trials. It's certainly worth reading this short book to find out. The prose is simple and straight forward, at times even beautiful.  The women's relationship takes center stage, but the book is also an interesting look at male-oriented family life and the 'business' of medicine in Japan in the early 1800's.

My rating:

Bottom line: 
A short, enjoyable novel, that offers an interesting look at medicine and female relationships in a male-oriented Japanese family.


  1. I've not heard of this but it sounds interesting. I think the relationship between women and their mothers in law can sometimes be a bit difficult or complex.

  2. girl I love your style of reviewing! It's engaging not so "to the point." I think I may add this book to my wishlist! Happy Reading!@

  3. I am glad you enjoyed this book-I thought it was a very interesting look at medicine and family life in 19th century Japan-I also enjoyed your very well done post a lot

  4. I don't read a lot of Japanese literature but this one sounds really good. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  5. I am very intrigued! This will be going on the holds list ASAP.

  6. Thank you for this review. Sounds a fascinating book. A new author and book for me so really appreciate the heads up.

  7. I know, I have some books that were ordered before The Dare, and according to my rules, I can read them when they are finally delivered! Ha! This book has alot going for it...the historical aspects, the relationships, the culture.

    BTW, I like the way you are structuring your reviews now. Very nice!

  8. This book sounds really interesting. I love the fact I am always hearing about different books from bloggers like you, that I have never heard of previously. Thanks JoAnn.

  9. This sounds fascinating, but I'm not sure I could take all the medical talk about needles!!

  10. I haven't heard of this one before but it sounds really interesting. I'll have to check my library for it.

  11. Sounds very interesting. I'll have to check whether my library has this one.

  12. Stories of pioneer surgeries are fascinating aren't they. Well, if you like that sort of thing I suppose...and I do. The Nerdy History Girls wrote about a woman having a mastectomy without anesthesia. Alcohol must have come into it somewhere...yikes!

  13. Sam - It was amazing how such a close relationship between MIL and DIL turned sour once the son/husband appeared.... quite an interesting story.

    Vern - Your comment made my day! Thanks so much.

    Mel - Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I really enjoyed it!

    Amused - I don't read much Japanese lit either - maybe one book a year - but this was very good.

    Read the Book - Hope you like, too!

    Mystica - That's one of the reasons I picked this one up after reading Mel's review... so nice to hear about a new author.

    Sandy - I think I've finally found a review format that works for me... glad you like it!

    Diane - I love hearing about new books, too. That's one of the reasons I was so anxious to read this one.

    Amanda - There really wasn't that much medical stuff... especially when compared to a book like Cutting for Stone.

    Darlene - Hope your library has it. There was just one copy in our whole system.

    Tiina - I hope your library has it. It's quite a story... even better when you know it's based on a true story.

    Darlene - I absolutely love stories like this! Even more medical details would have been fine with me .

  14. This book sounds very interesting. I know the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is often fraught with tension & is competitive. But competing to be the guinea pig in clinical trials is a little nutty! And it's sad that a close relationship suddenly deteriorates.

    Thank you for a terrific review!
    ~ Amy

  15. I have also read and posted on the same author's The River Ki which centers on the lives of 3 generations of women from the same family-some consider it is best work-

  16. Amy - This was a very unusual book. I'm glad to have read it... one of the strangest mother-in-law relationships ever!

    Mel U - Thanks for mentioning The River Ki again. Unfortunately there are no copies in my library system, but I have added it to my amazon wish list... maybe after the tbr dare is over :-)


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